North Korea said on Friday that it understands the need to resume the stalled international talks on ending its nuclear programmes, and that it agrees to work with the United States to narrow unspecified “remaining differences.”
The statement from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry was the first reaction from the country to three days of high-level talks with President Barack Obama’s special envoy. Upon returning from North Korea on Thursday, envoy Stephen Bosworth made similar remarks in Seoul that the two sides reached common understandings on the need to restart the nuclear talks.
Though the North stopped short of making a firm commitment to return to the negotiating table, its reaction appears to be positive and raises hope that the stalled disarmament process could resume.
The North said in the statement that this week’s meetings with the U.S. “deepened the mutual understanding, narrowed their differences and found not a few common points.”
The two sides “also reached a series of common understandings of the need to resume the six-party talks and the importance of implementing” a 2005 disarmament pact, the North said in a statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
“Both sides agreed to continue to cooperate with each other in the future to narrow down the remaining differences,” the statement said, without elaborating what those remaining differences are.
The 2005 pact calls for North Korea to end its nuclear programs in exchange for political and economic concessions.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters that for a “preliminary meeting, it was quite positive.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley urged the North to make a firm commitment to return to the negotiating table.
“They have to make the fundamental decision, and we did not leave the meeting today believing that they had crossed the threshold that we want to see them cross,” he told reporters. “We want to see them come back to the six—party process.”
North Korea — believed capable of building at least a half-dozen atomic bombs — had been negotiating since 2003 with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea on dismantling its nuclear program in exchange for much-needed aid and other concessions.
North Korea ditched the talks earlier this year in anger over the international criticism of its ambitions to develop rocket technology that could be used one day to send a long-range missile hurling across the Pacific.
Weeks later, the regime conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a series of ballistic missiles and threatened to restart its nuclear reactor. The defiance earned widespread condemnation and tighter U.N. sanctions. Pyongyang called it a U.S.-North Korea issue, and demanded bilateral talks.
Mr. Bosworth’s trip marked the Obama administration’s first high-level talks with Pyongyang.
While in Pyongyang, Mr. Bosworth met with the North’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju — leader Kim Jong Il’s top foreign policy brain — as well as Pyongyang’s chief nuclear envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan. The visit did not include a meeting with Mr. Kim Jong Il.
North Korea said the two sides “had a long exhaustive and candid discussion on wide-ranging issues” including denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, forging a peace treaty, improving bilateral relations and economic and energy assistance.
North Korea has long sought diplomatic relations with the U.S., which fought for the South Koreans during the three-year Korean War of the 1950s. Washington still has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, which technically remains at war with the North because they signed a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Pyongyang routinely accuses Washington of plotting to attack North Korea, and it cites the U.S. military presence on the peninsula as a chief reason behind its need for an atomic arsenal. The U.S. denies seeking to invade the North.
Mr. Bosworth said he conveyed Mr. Obama’s message, calling firmly for a “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” and underlining Washington’s willingness to help bring the isolated country back into the international fold. The envoy said discussion of a peace treaty — the prize Pyongyang so desires — could take place within the six-party talks framework.
“As President Obama has made clear, the United States is prepared to work with our allies and partners in the region to offer North Korea a different future,” Mr. Bosworth said. “The path for North Korea to realise this future is to choose the door of dialogue in the six-party talks and to take irreversible steps to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Analysts called it too early to call Bosworth’s mission a success. Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute, a think tank outside Seoul, predicted a “tug of war” over when North Korea should rejoin the talks.
“North Korea will only return to the talks after the U.S. offers it a face-saving move or substantial rewards,” he said.